Goldberg Variations (for string trio)

0 of 5 stars

Bach, transcribed Sitkovetsky
Goldberg Variations, BWV988

Julian Rachlin (violin), Nobuko Imai (viola) & Mischa Maisky (cello)

Recorded in February 2006 in Lukaskirche, Dresden

Reviewed by: Colin Anderson

Reviewed: February 2007
CD No: DG 477 6378
Duration: 80 minutes

Bach has probably had more transcriptions made of his music than any other composer; and the notion of such transfers was quite common in Bach’s time – not in the sense of, say, Respighi’s large-orchestra transformations of Bach’s organ music but more in the cross-fertilisation of ideas from one creator to another and showing, as Bach himself did, another aspect to some of Vivaldi’s organ concertos.

Bach’s Goldberg Variations is now considered a time-honoured keyboard masterpiece (for harpsichord or piano), and that it should work so successfully when played by a string trio should not either surprise or be considered unethical.

Dmitri Sitkovetsky’s arrangement for string trio, dedicated to Glenn Gould, was first heard in 1985 and has been recorded previously (including one with Sitkovetsky himself as the violinist). This superb new version, featuring a trio of internationally renowned soloists, makes the strongest possible case for hearing this work in this way. There is a certain mystique to the story surrounding the creation of the Goldberg Variations – that the Russian ambassador to the Dresden court would have the resident harpsichordist, by the name of Goldberg, play pieces by Bach to soothe the insomnia-plagued dignitary. Bach’s meticulously (mathematically) structured set of Variations would seem remarkably ambitious for such a cause … but that’s the legend.

It can be, when performed on harpsichord or piano, that the Goldberg Variations begins to lose its flavour over the course of its 30 sections (which are book-ended by the germinating ‘Aria’), and when all repeats are in place then a 70- (András Schiff) to 90-minute (Rosalyn Tureck) experience can be a profoundly musical one or something not quite so absorbing. This may be partly to do with the ‘one’ sound of the keyboard instrument being used.

Listened to courtesy of three string instruments brings clarification of Bach’s contrapuntal efficacy. Interest is sustained – even when all repeats are observed, as here, and the whole work emerges as without weak linkages. This is a tribute to Sitkovetsky’s transcription, to these three musicians’ absolute dedication, integrity and sensitive rapport, and to the music itself – its intricacy and eloquence seem so well suited to this medium. Variation XXV (‘Black Pearl’, as it is sometimes known) is here raptly expressive enough to suggest that this is the ‘only’ way that this haunting segment can be experienced.

This particular account glows (the resonance of the acoustic plays its part admirably), the musicians finding a just balance between timbre, division and expression – and reveal Bach’s invention as a miracle of thought and clarity. The head and heart is satisfied. In short, this is a glorious and enlightening release.

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